Lamont fires 12 new state employees who defied his COVID-19 orders
Gov. Ned Lamont fired a dozen newly hired state employees still within their six-month probationary periods on Friday after they defied his order that 31,000 state agency employees either prove they were vaccinated for COVID-19 or agree to weekly testing.
The actions are the latest salvo in the campaign between a governor, who has ordered inoculations and testing, and rank-and-file workers who are either hesitant or opposed to
The employees, who were not identified by name or department, were technically suspended, not fired. But probationary employees under suspension can lose their jobs immediately without contracted steps of discipline, making the moves terminations in effect.
Lamont, speaking after an unrelated event in Windsor Locks, said the 12 workers were among the 671 unionized state workers who did not comply with the order as of late Thursday. The governor said that since then, more employees have reported they would inoculate or test.
Lamont did not say Friday when or whether he would order suspensions for regular employees who defied the order.
The suspensions come as metrics used to track the virus are trending downward in Connecticut, mirroring a general decline in the rest of the country. The 7-day rolling average of new cases has fallen around 34 percent in the last four weeks to an average of around 420 newly reported infections per day, according to state data.
Hospitalizations for the virus, at 234 Friday, are down from a peak of a little under 400 in mid-August — but are unchanged from a week ago.
On Friday, the state recorded 509 new infections with a daily positivity rate of 1.52 percent.
Statewide among all residents eligible for the COVID inoculation, 76 percent were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, compared with 79 percent of state employees.
For each employee who had not been vaccinated or agreed to weekly testing, Lamont said, “I do know that we reached out and made sure it wasn’t a matter of misunderstanding... If it was, work with us, or work with us now.”
Similar orders are in effect for state employees in higher education and the Judicial and Legislative branches.
Republicans, including House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, RNorth Branford, said Lamont didn’t have to carry out the suspensions to keep the state safe and Connecticut doesn’t need to mandate vaccinations.
“What I would hope is the governor would be more respectful of people’s personal health care decisions and try to balance them not getting the vaccine or potentially tested versus sacrificing their livelihood,” Candelora said Friday. “There needs to be a case-by-case conversation on why these individuals are not complying. Connecticut is in such a good position with its infection rate, hospitalization rate.”
There is no urgency, Candelora said, considering the declining illness. “Why do we need to achieve a greater than 96 percent vaccination rate? Many workers are working remotely. There are workers who have natural immunity…..People working on the highway picking up litter, I’m not sure what vested interest there is in getting them vaccinated.”
Lamont said the state is working with each employee who is not compliant. “We reached out to them more than once and you get vaccinated or you get tested .... If you say no, you can’t work here. It’s unsafe.”
On Thursday, Lamont released agency-by-agency details that show Department of Correction employees have the lowest rate of vaccinations at 57 percent of 5,290 employees. By contrast, workers in the Department of Public Health, for example, have a 93 percent inoculation rate among more than 670 employees.
SEBAC, the state union coalition, has been negotiating terms of the suspensions, such as where and when free testing will be available. It’s unclear whether the unions will oppose the actions of Friday, as state workers in their probationary period do not have the same protections as regular union members.
“I think within less than a week we’ve been reaching out to people, you know, making sure there is no confusion, making sure that they know this is what the rules are,” Lamont said. “One more chance if you want to play by the rules: vaccination or testing, otherwise you can’t work for us for now.”
Workers in state hospitals and congregate housing facilities have less flexibility, with the order to vaccinate or risk suspension, amid union warnings that state-run healthcare facilities are understaffed.
“I think we’re going to be in good shape,” Lamont said. “I think the overwhelming majority got vaccinated and the president doesn’t suggest we compromise on that and neither do I, especially when you’re dealing with the elderly, especially when you’re dealing with those who are sick, you’ve got to be vaccinated. Otherwise, it’s not safe.”
Lamont’s staff has been in negotiations with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition over exact terms of the vaccinate-or-test orders and will likely win more than four weeks of free testing.
In a late afternoon statement, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition , representing about 30 bargaining units, announced that an agreement on testing and suspensions was reached with the Lamont administration that will allow free testing for employees until at least Feb. 15 2022, when the current emergency declaration expires.
In addition, during the first 30 days of a unpaid, 45-day suspension period, employees can resign in “good standing,” with a year-long option to rescind their resignations and return to work. Those who do not choose resignation will lose their jobs permanently after 45 days.
“While we are pleased with the progress that has been made, the new agreement does not adequately address our concerns that strict enforcement of the vaccine requirement in state hospitals and longterm care facilities could exacerbate the staffing shortages that existed long before COVID-19,” SEBAC sasid in a statement. “We continue to urge the State to allow the unions and the state to meet to discuss remedies in the event the mandate exacerbates critical staffing shortages in particular facilities and to temporarily allow a testing option in those facilities to prevent harm to clients/ patients or staff.”